UN treaty agrees to limit gene drives but rejects a moratorium

Treaty’s vague language on how researchers can release engineered organisms has both opponents and supporters of the technology claiming victory.

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Mosquito nets in Burkina Faso

Plans are afoot to release mosquitoes carrying gene drives in Burkina Faso.Credit: Nyani Quarmyne/Panos

Nations rejected a proposal to temporarily ban the release of organisms carrying gene drives — a genetic-engineering technology designed to spread mutations rapidly through a target population — on 29 November at a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

Dozens of scientists opposed the moratorium proposal, although numerous environmental and activist groups supported it.

A gene-drive moratorium was never likely to succeed in the face of opposition from biotechnology-friendly countries, because changes to the CBD must be accomplished by reaching consensus among the convention’s almost 200 parties.

Instead, representatives at the two-week-long meeting agreed to changes to the treaty that were vague enough that both proponents and sceptics of gene-drive technology are touting victory.

Signatories to the treaty, which has been ratified by most of the world’s countries and influences national laws that affect biodiversity, agreed on the need to assess the risks of gene-drive releases on a case-by-case basis. They also said that local communities and indigenous groups potentially affected by such a release should be consulted.

Cautious progress

“The final agreement here recognises the value of the enormous opportunity that gene drive research represents as well as the safeguards necessary to ensure its responsible development,” said Austin Burt, an evolutionary geneticist at Imperial College London, in an e-mail to the press.

Burt leads Target Malaria, a project that intends to test gene-drive-carrying mosquitoes in sub-Saharan Africa as early as 2024. The project’s director of stakeholder engagement, Delphine Thizy, says that the team is already conducting community outreach in sub-Saharan African countries, such as Burkina Faso, where they hope to release the engineered mosquitoes. “For our work, it won’t change anything,” she says.

Jim Thomas, co-director of the ETC Group, an environmental advocacy organisation in Ottawa, sees it differently.

“This is a very cautionary and concerned decision about gene drives,” he says. “There is nothing whatsoever in the text that talks about so-called benefits of gene drives — only risks. It’s not a formal moratorium, but it gets pretty close.”

In particular, Thomas thinks that the treaty text sets a high bar for seeking the approval of communities potentially affected by the release of an organism carrying a gene drive. “This is a decision that gives the power back to communities to decide whether or not their lands and territories should be experimented on — and rightly so.”

Todd Kuiken, a biotechnology-policy specialist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who is part of an expert panel that advises the CBD on gene drives, says that it will take time to parse the language agreed today. The text must be interpreted by the countries that will ultimately license any gene-drive release — and thus he sees no quick end to the debate.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07600-w
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Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 30 November 2018: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that consensus needed to be reached only between the convention’s signatory nations.